Nowadays, things aren’t so simple when you’re traveling with a guitar. The dynamics — and the expenses — of airplane travel have changed so much that keeping your guitar safe, nearby, and in one piece has become a lot more difficult than it should be.
Sometimes you’ll get away with stashing your axe in the overhead bin; other times you’ll get a stern communiqué from an overworked flight attendant instructing you to commit your precious guitar to the frigid no-man’s-land of the airplane’s belly. On that occasion, by all means, make a case for stowing your guitar in the cabin or in a coat closet. Just remember that a taser to the throat is the TSA’s signature response to passenger disobedience, and it leaves a mark.
Yes, in some situations all you can do is swallow hard, send your guitar to the bottom, and brace yourself for the impending ulcers. To help you avoid that situation, we offer up these 7 Tips For Flying With Your Guitar, with special mention to international clinician, producer and session player Jeff McErlain for his insights.
1. Loosen the strings on your guitar
Temperature and pressure changes in flight can put enough strain on your guitar to snap that perfectly angled mahogany neck — unless your strings are loose. Whether you can fit your guitar in the overhead bin or have to nervously watch as it slips out of sight on the luggage belt, you should always loosen your strings before you close the case. Taut guitar strings have over 300lbs of tension – you don’t want that to work against you.
2. Stuff it like a turkey.
Guitars are fragile. Most of us know this. But a lot of people don’t. It’s a good idea to give your guitar some extra padding and support by stuffing a few t-shirts, socks or hotel towels into the cavities of your guitar case. Pay special attention to the headstock and neck – these are the most common break points. You want to minimize movement of your instrument within the case and at the same time provide some cushion to soften blows from the drops, falls, and throws of disgruntled airport employees.
3. Know which airlines allow guitars to be stowed as a carry-on.
To make it easier for you, we put together this list of airlines that are guitar friendly. If an airline is not on this list it’s because they don’t make stated carry-on exceptions for instruments or we couldn’t find any info on their site. It’s still a good idea to call ahead after checking airline websites for carry-on policies. They often have provisions for instruments.
Southwest Airlines (Southwest accepts instruments on a “conditional basis”; i.e, proceed at your own risk.)
* Knowing in advance what type of aircraft you’ll be flying in will help you decide how to pack your guitar. If you’re flying in a small commuter plane you should pack your guitar in a sturdy hard case because you will most definitely have to stow it below deck.
4. Get a travel guitar.
Why? Flexibility. Travel guitars aren’t just novelties anymore: you can get gig-worthy travel axes ranging from custom boutique jobbers to penny-pincher models. Here are a few brands to get you started:
Traveler Guitar.com ($299+)
Best Travel Guitars.com voted the Speedster model a 9.7 out of 10 for best travel guitar. Though it’s not recommended for gigs or serious sessions, Jeff McErlain says, “When I go on vacation for more than a few days, I’ll bring my Speedster, a pocket Pod and a pair of headphones. That’s all I need to survive, it’s great. ”
Voyage-Air Travel Guitars ($399 +)
Their motto is “go anywhere with Voyage-Air,” and they’re right. These fully featured electric and acoustic guitars fold in half (fitting into a specially made backpack) and are easily unpacked for your gig. Thom Bresh never leaves home without one.
First Act 34” Acoustic Guitar ($39.99)
Yes, this is a children’s model acoustic. Which means it’s small, lightweight, and dirty-faced affordable (in case it breaks or gets lost). Not to mention it has decent tone for the casual player. I’ve been known to take one on camping trips and to potentially dangerous field parties.
Shipping is not always ideal for the uber-transient guitarist, but it’s a safe and viable option when you have no other choice. If you’re going to ship your guitar within the continental United States you can expect to spend about $25 (ground) with insurance. You definitely want insurance.
6. Invest in a good guitar case.
A good, sturdy guitar case will last you a long time and it’ll pay for itself the first time your guitar makes it out alive from the wilderness of the airport luggage bay. We’re not just talking dollars and cents here – peace of mind is a valuable commodity. Take a peek at these sheaths to see what’s out there:
The strength of a gig bag isn’t in its nylon fabric; it’s in the negotiating power it gives you when you’re pleading your case to a stewardess. Says Jeff, “The slim, smaller size of a gig bag means you can politely ask the flight attendant to put it in the coat check, which almost always works. And it’ll lend you extra sympathy points when you’re working the airport authorities: ‘This is a $3,000 guitar and there’s no doubt it will perish if you send it below! Couldn’t you please ask someone else if they could send their suitcase full of clothing to the bottom? Pretty please?’ Be polite, but don’t give in either.”
Also, carry a gig bag like a suitcase; you want to keep it inconspicuous, especially if it will be out of sight during the flight. BEWARE! Take a gig bag at your own risk. There is no guarantee that you will be able to sweet talk your way out of every situation. If you’re forced to send your guitar below deck in a gig bag, you might as well have stuffed it into a pillow case.
These guys throw their guitar flight cases off roof tops and pummel them with iron hammers to prove their ruggedness. Not to mention, the company boasts a clientele of pro players as well as the U.S. military. While you could probably never take these cases as a carry-on, they do offer protection from the indigestion you’d otherwise suffer worrying about your guitar in the cargo hold. Get one of these and leave the Pepto at home.
SKB has been around for over 30 years and makes some of the best hardshell cases out there for transporting and protecting guitars. As a rule, form-molded, plastic cases will give you the most flexibility when traveling with your guitar — just don’t expect to stow it as a carry-on. But if you have a good case, it’ll be rugged enough to go toe to toe with the burliest of luggage handlers.
These are road cases, the kind you see roadies hauling out of tour buses and stacking backstage. Solid, rugged, and TSA-approved, they’re perhaps the best protection you can get for your guitar. Like those mentioned above, you’ll never get it past as a carry-on. These babies are stow-away only and are best deployed with a foul-mouthed ex-pat Briton roadie lugging it around for you.
7. Always be polite.
No matter how much you prepare, you can’t be ready for every scenario. Your guitar could get stolen or the flight might be too full to accommodate your carry-on case. But in those rare instances of doom and desperation, the best thing you can do is keep your cool and get smart.
Jeff says: “Sometimes I just lie. I’ll say, ‘They told me at the front desk that it was fine…’ Or I’ll make sure that I get a seat in the back of the plane so I can get on first and hide my guitar behind my neighbor’s bag in the overhead bin. No matter what, traveling with your guitar is a nerve-wracking experience. But when all else fails I explain that I’m willing to put it anywhere on the flight so long as it doesn’t go below. If you’re polite, respectful and make sure you stand your ground, you can get through almost anything.”
And remember, if you’re traveling with a guitar that’s not replaceable then you should get evaluated by a psychologist as to why you are traveling with it in the first place.
Charlie Doom is an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker and musician. He has worked with artists such as Nokie Edwards, Larry Carlton, Johnny Winter, Joe Bonamassa and Slash among many others and is the director of the online guitar education Mecca, TrueFire TV.
Jeff McErlain is a New York City based guitarist, producer, songwriter, and instructor. He’s traveled the world conducting clinics and performing live, from South America to Asia. Check out Jeff’s latest guitar instructional DVD release, 50 Blues Licks You MUST Know!